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Do Internet Offers For Low-Income Families Come With Strings Attached?

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A student receives a laptop computer for remote learning in front of L.A. Unified's Bell High School. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
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For years, L.A. neighborhoods like Watts and Boyle Heights have been stuck on the wrong side of a “digital divide”: few families in these low-income communities have access to computers and high-speed internet.

This long-standing problem has become an acute educational crisis during the pandemic. Many children, particularly those in middle- and high school, need internet access in order to do their homework.

Since the coronavirus struck, internet companies have offered to bridge this divide. AT&T, Charter Spectrum and Comcast are running deals to connect low-income households to the internet for little or no cost.

Do these offers live up to their advertising? Not according to an organization that runs public schools in Watts, South L.A. and Boyle Heights.

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(At least one of those providers, AT&T, said that there may be a miscommunication about what's in their offer. But we'll get to that in a second.)

Staff of the organization — the Partnership for L.A. Schools — made calls to six different internet companies, posing as customers in Watts trying to sign up for free internet services. The organization released a report today about what they learned:

  • Limited service in Watts. The Partnership’s staff found that Charter Spectrum and Comcast service there is spotty, meaning AT&T is the only provider most families in the 90002 zip code can use. USC researchers have said that many broadband providers pass over low-income neighborhoods — and with little competition, residents sometimes pay higher prices.
  • ‘No free trial available.’ AT&T advertises that it’s offering two free months of its already-discounted internet service for low-income families. But the Partnership reports that “most callers were told that no free trial is available.” Instead, callers were told they had to “sign on for a $59.99/month offer after the 60 days.” In pockets of Watts served by Spectrum, callers were also asked to sign up for full-cost services after the initial 60 days expired.
  • No Social Security number? The Partnership found that callers who couldn’t provide a Social Security number to AT&T were asked to put down a $99 deposit.
"This is a public relations win for [these companies] to announce special offers during this time," said Chase Stafford, the Partnership's director of policy and planning and the lead researcher on the project. He added:
"That's great. We want companies who deserve praise to get it. But we need to ensure that actual services match up to what they’re saying in announcements."

We reached out to AT&T for a response. The company said the Partnership's report appears to confuse the company's Access service — targeted to low-income customers — with its standard, full-price internet service.

"We further expanded Access program eligibility temporarily to households wth children" receiving free or reduced-price school lunches, said spokesman Jim Kimberly, who encouraged anyone interested in the service to apply online.

So what's the source of the miscommunication? Kimberly couldn't say for sure — but he did note that anyone hoping to sign up for the low-cost service must call a different phone number than for normal service: 855-220-5211 (in English) or 850-220-5225 (in Spanish).

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Spectrum also offered a response to the Partnership report:

  • "Spectrum Internet [is] widely available throughout Watts, East L.A., and South L.A.," wrote spokesman Dennis Johnson. "It is possible that a survey respondent who lives in a multiple-dwelling unit isn’t serviceable because we don’t have an agreement with the property owner to wire the building."
  • On March 16, Spectrum launched a "60-day free internet offer for families with school-aged children and professional educators who are not currently Spectrum Internet customers," Johnson said. The company also offers a low-cost internet service option aimed at low-income families.

This post was updated at 9:05 a.m. to include a statement from AT&T.

This post was updated at 2:10 p.m. to include a statement from Charter Spectrum.

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